Last week, in an interaction with senior security personnel, the newly appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Nawaf stressed on the need to deal with the public, especially expatriates, “with respect, and away from injustice or insult”. He noted that irrespective of whether the person interacting with the police is a citizen, an American, or an Indian, they should all be treated in the same manner with dignity and respect.

Noting that most of those who deal with the public are non-commissioned officers in charge of public security, emergency services and traffic, Al-Nawaf said, “They feel people’s pulse, and when the public come to the police stations with complaints, they must be taken care of respectfully, and this honor should be for all segments of society residing in our beloved land.”

In his address to the security officials and employees who had gathered to congratulate him on his new appointment, Al-Nawaf stressed the need to implement the law and punish those who violate it, and warned that any officer who abuses his authority to harm the citizen or resident will be punished and legal measures taken against him. He said that such officers would not have a place in the Ministry of Interior, “because the one who does not respect the citizen and the resident does not respect his country, and we will also not respect him”.

“I came to the ministry to try and do everything I can to advance it, and if we do not cooperate, we will not advance the ministry. But I am confident that if we join hands, the desired goals will be achieved,” said the new Interior Minister. He added, “I hope that everyone respects everyone, and applies the rule of law to everyone equally. Overcoming the obstacles the public face and facilitating their affairs should be the norm of work, and this will reflect on the reputation of government agencies.”

Pointing to neighboring Dubai where everyone is treated with respect by security personnel, and all their transaction are completed quickly and efficiently, the minister said, “I have no objection to sending a specialized committee to Dubai to learn from the Interior Ministry there, on how they operate, and to take a leaf of experience from them. Or we can bring them to Kuwait to train us here, but we have to strive and be at the forefront of developing work.”

The Interior Minister’s missive is probably the first time that a senior minister in the Cabinet expressed his condemnation of discrimination and implicitly acknowledged that discrimination against expatriates, especially those hailing from South Asia was rampant in the police force. His warning to erring police officials are welcome words to all those expatriates who have had to deal with the Ministry of Interior in various circumstances, and have often been at the receiving end of discriminatory practices from different departments of the ministry.

Starting from the immigration department at the airport on their arrival in Kuwait, expatriates face a series of harrowing experiences at the hands of security personnel. This ranges from their visit to the residency affairs departments to obtain a residency stamp, or a visa for their family; it manifests during one’s interactions with security personnel on the streets during routine security-checks, and continues at the General Traffic Department, when the expat seeks to obtain or renew a driving license, or in the event of any traffic infarctions.

The discrimination is reportedly even more egregious at the detention and deportation centers. However, it would be grossly unfair to target only the Interior Ministry for discriminatory practices against expatriates; it is just that security personnel in various departments are the ones that expatriates usually have to interact with most often. But discrimination exists everywhere and in all walks of life in Kuwait and in public sector, as well as, less manifestly, in some services provided by private enterprises. It is present when an expatriate visits the Ministry of Electricity and Water, or the Communication Ministry to access household utility connections or other public services.

And, though one would expect the Ministry of Health to be one area that is immune to discriminatory practices, sadly this has not been the experience of many expatriates. While race or ethnicity should not be a factor in deciding when and how a patient gets treated, systemic discriminatory policies have led to suboptimal care and unfavorable outcomes for some expatriate patients. This implicit bias in the system was glaringly brought to the limelight during the early wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

During the initial months of the health crisis, many frontline workers such as nurses and other healthcare providers directly interacting with infectious patients were reportedly not provided with personal protection gear. Moreover, even when vaccines began to be available at the start of 2021, most of these expatriate frontline healthcare workers were not prioritized for receiving the initial dose of vaccination. The result was that many of these frontliners were infected by the virus, at a time when these personnel were most needed, and quite a few paid the ultimate price with their lives.

Health authorities have responded to allegation of bias by stating that the vaccine delivery was not discriminatory and that they were prioritising all frontline workers and those in high-risk groups. Nevertheless, the skewed delivery of vaccines in the early phase of the vaccination drive have been confirmed by official figures, which reveal that during the initial rollout of vaccinations, while more than 120,000 nationals received the first dose of the vaccine, only 18,000 foreigners received the same.

The vaccination discrimination, especially during the early stages of the pandemic was also fueled by a upsurge in virulent xenophobic rhetoric against expatriates. Social media was rife with comments that peddled toxic rhetoric, blaming expatriates for the emergence and spread of infections. A poll released during the initial phase of the crisis showed that 65 percent of citizens believed foreign workers were mainly to blame for the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

Fast forward to the post-COVID-19 era and nothing appears to have changed. Suffice to say that societal discrimination against noncitizens continues to be prevalent in most areas of daily life. The usual refrain by some citizens to complaints against discrimination is, ‘You can always leave Kuwait; who is forcing you to come and stay in our country.” Though it is a logically coherent response, this mode of thinking is probably just another indicator of the deeply entrenched prejudices that exist against foreigners in Kuwait.

The feeling that somehow foreigners are usurping the rights, privileges and jobs that are rightfully only theirs to enjoy — by virtue of nothing more than their birth as Kuwaiti citizens — is rife among some sections of nationals. But this was not always the case.

From the time it was recognized as a separate state in the early 18th century, Kuwait has espoused an external policy that pivoted on building consensus, mutual cooperation and peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries. This was arguably driven by its own self-interest, given the country’s diminutive size and its precarious location, wedged as it is between two large and often belligerent neighbors.

From the early days, Kuwait also adopted a similar compliant position in its domestic policies by weaving moderation and tolerance of others into its social fabric. Again, this was less a matter of choice, or the broad-minded, enlightened views of previous rulers. It was a necessity brought on by the small number of citizens, and the country’s almost total reliance on outsiders for most of its needs, and for its survival as a state. The discovery of oil in the late 1930s and the country’s independence in 1961 only heightened Kuwait’s dependence on outsiders, both to manage its rapidly growing oil industry, as well as to help build a modern welfare state on the bedrock of its new-found oil wealth .

The foreigners drawn into Kuwait by the lucrative opportunities presented by the nascent state, flowed in from neighboring Arab countries, as well as from further afield from Asia, Africa and Europe. The immigrants brought with them their own cultures, customs, and faiths that were in most cases alien to conservative Kuwaiti culture and tradition. However, the compelling need for expatriate expertise, experience, technical know-how and administrative support to run the country, obliged citizens to compromise and adjust, to tolerate and accept many of these ‘foreign’ ways of social and cultural life.

Following Kuwait’s independence, this acceptance of outsiders was also enshrined in the country’s Constitution promulgated in 1962. Article 29 of the Constitution lucidly states that ‘all people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction to race, origin, language, or religion’. The constitution also guarantees the ‘personal liberty’ of everyone in Kuwait.

For its part the government has espoused a policy of indiscrimination and tolerance of all sections of the population. The official state policy also advocates the acceptance of diversity, and respect for others, as well as endorsement of other human rights values. The country is also a signatory to various United Nations and other international covenants and agreements on human rights, tolerance and migrant rights.
However, it needs to be pointed out that while the wordings of the Constitution and official stance of the government are the norm for citizens, there is no denying that its extension to expatriates remains de jure only in judicial settings, and in policy papers of the government. In reality, in most situations and walks of life, de facto discriminations are rife, in particular when it comes to the large migrant population from Asia and Africa.

Discrimination is one of the most common forms of human rights violations and abuse, and is often one of the most difficult to diagnose and treat as it manifests in so many forms and places. Understanding discrimination in all its variances is critical to designing official policy interventions, and for creating the necessary social awareness, needed to promote equality and tolerance in society. As was the case in the early days of Kuwait’s history, an attitude of openness, indiscrimination and tolerance of foreigners remains crucial ingredients, to ensure the sustainable growth and development of the country going forward.

But before beginning a discussion on discrimination there needs to be clarity on the terms being used. Sociologists and other experts point out that while intolerance, discrimination and racism are closely related concepts, they are different in their application. Racism is a form of discrimination based on physical features of a person such as the color of their skin, or their ethnicity. It is the belief that personality, behavior and morals can be traced back to race and ethnic backgrounds, and that one race is superior to another. Intolerance is a lack of respect for the practices or beliefs of others.

Discrimination occurs when people from ‘other’ social or ethnic groups are treated less favorably than one’s own people. While racism, intolerance and discrimination are all wrong, discrimination and intolerance is racism made real, as it puts into action often benign racist thoughts. To complicate things further, sociologists point out discrimination manifests itself in both explicit and implicit forms. Explicit bias refers to biased attitudes that you are aware of, while implicit bias refers to biased attitudes that operate outside your awareness and control.
An example of explicit bias would be, a person choosing not to work with people from other religions or cultures. On the other hand, an example of implicit bias would be a male who believes in gender equality, nevertheless picking another man to fill a job, from a pool of equally qualified male and female candidates, because ‘he knows’ that men would be better in that role.

If all these varieties of discrimination were not enough, there is also direct discrimination, which is easily discernible, and there also exists indirect modes of discrimination that are less evident. Indirect discrimination includes systemic discriminations in government policies, which often manifest as biased institutional mechanisms that consistently favor citizens over foreigners. For instance, existing rules and norms in accessing many of the social, political, health or economic opportunities in Kuwait have stipulations that are skewed in favor of nationals, which places outsiders who do not ‘belong’ at a definite disadvantage.

Discrimination is the result of entrenched prejudices that one group or person harbors against others, and is often difficult to eradicate since it often colors our perceptions of reality. The deeply ingrained prejudices lead people to selectively filter information they receive — accepting those that confirm one’s own biases and ignoring those that run counter to these beliefs. Discrimination and intolerance are basically expressions of prejudices in practice and can lead to division, hatred and even the dehumanization of other people because they have a different identity.

It needs to be added that discrimination is not limited to those from other groups, or to foreign migrants. It can also manifest against people in one’s own group, including women, the aged, and the disabled, as well as other minority sects in society. Examples of this internal discrimination are plentiful in many aspects of life in Kuwait. Unfortunately, we are dominated by a culture that not only tolerates intolerance in society, but also often unwittingly encourages it.

Happily an increasing number of citizens, especially young educated Kuwaitis consider themselves as being open-minded, non-judgemental and tolerant of different cultures, values and diversities of others. Kuwait needs more of such young citizens who are empathetic to their fellow human beings, who strive to understand another person’s point of view, and have the ability to identify and share an emotional and intellectual rapport with the thoughts, feelings, or state of another human being.

Discrimination prevents us from understanding the values and cultures that distinguish people and societies, and it hinders us from appreciating the wide difference that exists among human beings, and which makes life so colorful and interesting in this world.

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